Revolt of the Generals: Former marine officer, secretary of the navy, and senator James Webb took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal late last month to announce that “the gloves have now come off” in a burgeoning feud between the U.S. Marine Corps old guard and the current leadership. According to Senator Webb, twenty-two retired four-star generals recently cosigned a “nonpublic letter to concern” to General David Berger, the serving commandant. Politico reports that the group includes General Joe Dunford, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with a who’s-who of prominent names. To date, though, it’s been non-four-star advocates who have taken their concerns to print. Retired lieutenant general Paul Van Riper aimed a blow at Berger’s endeavors in the Marine Corps Times, former assistant secretary of defense Bing West held forth in National Review, and of course there’s Webb himself.
Webb reports that the generals attempted to “engage in a quiet dialogue” with the commandant, protesting his effort to remake the service to wage island warfare in company with the U.S. Navy fleet. They object chiefly to modest manpower cuts, primarily to infantry units; to the elimination of tanks from the order of battle; and to the replacement of traditional gun artillery with guided missiles optimal for sinking ships. Marine Corps leadership sees the changes as necessary to adapt the service to the battlefield it’s most likely to bestride, and has sought to redirect scarce funding from legacy systems into new acquisitions. Berger’s critics haven’t gotten their way, so they’ve taken off the gloves and gone public with their opposition. Fine. Let’s review the commentary currently on offer and see whether they land any haymakers.
Not so far.
Ideas matter. Yet the critics are so concerned with preserving the current Marine Corps force structure that they make little effort—in print, at any rate—to engage with the strategic thinking impelling Berger’s reforms. They likewise seem indifferent to the strategic environment marines confront in the Indo-Pacific, the Pentagon’s priority theater, and to the main challenger there, namely China. Top leadership has to designate an opponent to craft a strategy that stands much chance of success. Foresight anchors a strategy in reality. After World War I, when no new seaborne antagonist had yet come into view, U.S. Navy captain Harry Yarnell, a key member of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Planning Division, wisecracked that war planning with no enemy in sight is like “trying to design a machine tool without knowing whether it is going to manufacture hairpins or locomotives.”
The same goes for force design, which is about fielding the right implements to carry out a war plan. The critics seem to be demanding that the Marine Corps be an all-purpose machine tool that exists independent of the opponents it’s supposed to defeat and the surroundings where it will operate. But as Yarnell might reply, sage toolmakers fit the force structure to the circumstances rather than forge the tool and assume the circumstances will conform to it. If you divorce force design from the strategic and operational environment as it exists, you may end up manufacturing hairpins when national leaders clamor for locomotives. You remove any impetus to modify or reinvent the force as the environment changes around it. And you fail to set a standard for measuring the efficacy of change once forced upon the leadership. The institution remains static.
Stasis kills in times when adaptability is at a premium. Times such as ours.
Senator Webb is having none of that. In his words, the U.S. Marine Corps must be a “homogenous, all-encompassing ‘force in readiness’ that can go anywhere and fight anyone on any level short of nuclear war.” Rather than construct the force for the likeliest or most forbidding contingencies it might face, in other words, the corps should maintain a one-size-fits-all order of battle—a general-purpose force structure supposedly fitting for all contingencies at all times.
It’s worth noting that U.S. law doesn’t mandate a “homogeneous, all-encompassing ‘force-in-readiness’” suitable for any situation under the sun. These are Webb’s words. (Incidentally, “force in readiness” is a recurring phrase for Berger’s opponents. But as Van Riper recalls, this is a slogan drummed into junior marines, not a mandate set forth in U.S. law. It’s also unclear why detractors think Berger espouses a force not in readiness for missions entrusted to it from on high.) Title 10 of the U.S. Code, the directive that sets forth the composition and functions of the Marine Corps, states that the service “shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings,” along with capabilities necessary to support such a corps.
Three divisions, three air wings. That’s as far as Congress goes toward mandating a specific force structure for the Marine Corps.
The purpose of such a force? To “provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure or defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign” (my emphasis). In other words, the corps is supposed to be a maritime fighting force and an integral part of combined-arms operations to deny, win, and exploit command of the sea. Naval warfare comes first. Other missions—urban combat often comes up in commentary condemning Berger’s vision—are lesser-included missions, performed on a not-to-interfere basis with fleet operations.
And this hierarchy is proper. At its most basic, strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities while devising ways to use finite resources to accomplish the most important goals. Other functions are secondary. Lawmakers are explicit about their priorities. Title 10 allows for marines to execute functions subsidiary to naval warfare while making clear that “these additional duties may not detract from or interfere with the operations for which the Marine Corps is primarily organized.”
So much for my general critique of the critique. On to specifics. Again, it’s odd that the critics say little about the strategic concept spurring Berger to try to remake the Marine Corps. That may be because force structure is what they care about, and they regard the pre-Berger order of battle as sacrosanct. It’s certainly their baseline for inveighing against rebalancing the service’s capabilities. They fret about numbers and widgets rather than countenance the possibility that galloping change to the strategic environment warrants a fresh approach.
Senator Webb manages to suggest that General Berger’s strategic concept is “insufficiently tested or intrinsically flawed,” and that Berger is pushing “bad ideas,” without saying what the concept is. That’s not much of a rebuttal. General Van Riper goes a bit deeper, observing that the commandant wants to outfit three “marine littoral regiments” to “support naval campaigns for sea denial and sea control by firing anti-ship missiles.” This is true, if oversimplified and abstract from the strategic environment. The basic concept is that marines will shuttle from Pacific island to Pacific island, mainly along the first island chain. Marines on the islands will work with the fleet, affiliated joint air and ground forces, and allies to deny hostile coastal powers—read China or Russia—access to the islands, the straits that lie between, and the high seas beyond. Doing so would impose steep economic and military costs on prospective foes. Knowing this, Beijing or Moscow could well desist from aggression. If not, they would fight from a position of disadvantage.
This is the basis for the family of operational concepts the Marine Corps leadership has unveiled in recent years, which go by such titles as Force Design 2030, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment. Some friends of the corps bewail the cultural dimension of island-chain warfare, objecting that this novel mode of operations departs from decades of maneuver warfare. And so it may. It is a form of blockade duty that fuses nautical geography with military might with alliance politics. To reprise the language of Title 10, it demands that marines seize and defend island bases useful for barricading China within the first island chain. Holding real estate is a tactically defensive function—but some of the greats of strategic theory regard strategic offense coupled with tactical defense as the strongest form of warfare.
It’s worth remembering, moreover, that blockade is a time-honored method of naval warfare designed to take a hostile force off the board until it can be brought to battle. Ironically, worries about abandoning maneuver echo U.S. Army complaints about the Marine Corps’ “combined action platoon” program in Vietnam, which emplaced marine garrisons in South Vietnamese villages to fend off Vietcong insurgents and protect what mattered most: the populace. Army overseers scuttled this promising program, pronouncing it static, defensive-minded, and inglorious. They preferred offensive operations aimed at closing with and destroying enemy main forces.
In their vain quest for decisive battle, U.S. forces left the South Vietnamese populace—the Vietcong’s main source of supplies—exposed to insurgent depredations. Sometimes doctrine and treasured cultural preferences have to be put on hold for the sake of strategic success. If joint maritime forces can hold the line along the first island chain, denying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and Air Force access to waters and skies around the islands, they will position themselves to wrest maritime command from the foe. There will be time for the fleet—and the fleet marine force—to maneuver against the PLA within the China seas once the first island chain is secure.
For his part Secretary West gets specific about strategy, but most of what he writes is garbled. He contends that “a few years ago,” policymakers ordained a “pivot” to the Pacific after they discovered that “China was building forts on atolls in the South China Sea.” The marine commandant “immediately proclaimed a counter,” envisioning staging small bodies of troops on “unoccupied islands in the South China Sea,” from which “they could then fire missiles to sink Chinese warships.” Chief among the “mortal flaws in this anti-ship strategy,” opines West, is that “China has ‘pivoted’ toward Taiwan, far out of range of Marine missiles in the South China Sea.” That means “the Marines are out of position.” He concludes that “there are few battlefields where anti-ship missiles . . . will be used,” while faulting Commandant Berger for “ignoring history.”
Where to start? For one thing, West has the sequence of events wrong. The pivot to the Pacific was an Obama administration initiative launched late in 2011, by means of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Foreign Policy article on “America’s Pacific Century.” (It arguably goes back even further, to the second Bush administration, although Obama administration officials gave the pivot its name.) The Pentagon made the pivot formal early in 2012, albeit rebranding it a “rebalance” to the region. Whatever the label, this strategic shift was not specific to the South China Sea. Only in 2013 did Washington and its Asian partners discover that Chinese engineers had begun manufacturing artificial islands in the South China Sea. So the pivot came before—and wasn’t a hasty response to—Beijing’s island-building campaign.
For another, West has the content of Berger’s ideas wrong. Like the pivot, the concept prompting the commandant’s reforms is neither specific to the South China Sea nor driven by Beijing’s island fastnesses there. Assailing South China Sea bases represents a subset of the strategy at most. In reality the strategy envisions rigging a “Great Wall in reverse,” a barrier along the first island chain, to obstruct Chinese access to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Commentators such as yours truly tend to concentrate on the northerly and middle arcs of the first island chain—say, from Japan through the northern Philippines. We point out that joint forces ensconced on and around the islands could bar access to the high seas for the PLA Navy and Air Force, not to mention the Chinese merchant fleet. Access denial would exact colossal economic and military costs from China.
Others take a wider view. In 2013 a team of RAND researchers confirmed the feasibility of deploying missiles to close East and Southeast Asian straits. In 2015, in a similar vein, Andrew Krepinevich, a former director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), proposed a strategy of “archipelagic defense” ranging all around the island chain. In 2019 a team from CSBA urged the allies to “tighten the chain” around China.
Etc. These strategic concepts all make sense, even while differing on details. None was precipitated by the island-building campaign, or makes reducing PLA bases within the China seas its primary goal. Nor, again, does the South China Sea constitute the central focus of Berger’s ideas. Marines will not be out of position to close the straits because they will be in place where needed along the island chain, overlooking the straits. Look at your map, as Franklin Roosevelt liked to say. You will notice that anti-ship missiles positioned on the islands have the reach to overshadow the straits—especially when used in conjunction with joint sea and air forces prowling nearby waters and skies. An allied Great Wall in reverse, backed up by mobile heavy forces patrolling the Western Pacific to close any breaches in the wall, would be poised to give China a very bad day in wartime.
Best to get recent history right before accusing others of ignoring history.
The one telling point the critics have made thus far is that Berger’s strategic concept needs to be vetted through rigorous analysis and wargaming. The most elegant concept is a wish if it can’t be executed. It’s hard for us denizens of the unclassified world to judge with confidence whether classified studies or games have ratified the island-warfare concept, or whether reductions to Marine Corps infantry or traditional weapon systems run undue risks. Ergo, the commandant and his advisers should take this part of the generals’ critique to heart. They should ask themselves candidly whether testing has shown that island-chain warfare is the right concept and that the force structure they envision represents the right machine tool for the job. If so, they should use their findings and recommendations to convince administration magnates, and especially Congress, to make the necessary procurements.
I believe this has happened, but only insiders can know for sure.
Will the critics get their way by resorting to bareknuckles PR tactics? I doubt it. They seem to think Commandant Berger has been circumventing political oversight to make peremptory changes to the Marine Corps. But another retired marine, Frank Hoffman of the National Defense University, reminds Politico that Berger has not somehow gone rogue. Hoffman points out that the commandant’s scheme has “been through the requirements-based system, it’s been through the Joint Staff, through [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and through Congress twice, so it’s not like the Pentagon or Congress were derelict in oversight.” In some cases, notably that of a light amphibious transport to ferry missile-armed marines from island to island, Berger has not—yet—gotten his way. Lawmakers have voiced skepticism toward some elements of the proposed force structure, and what they say goes.
The revolt of the generals is welcome insofar as it keeps the sea services on their toes as they merge themselves into a single fighting force animated by a cohesive vision. Devil’s advocates combat groupthink and keep us honest. But let’s not take what they say on authority—never mind all those stars.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfighting, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.